Parents often speak without thinking, and end up saying things that can affect children. Here are a few to watch out for. By Georgina Guedes
It’s easy to fall back on old-school parenting wisdom or to talk to your kids without thinking of the messages you are sending them. But as parents, we do need to watch what we say, because every word is shaping the way our children think.
Here are some things you should avoid saying to your kids, and what to say instead.
1. “Finish what’s on your plate.”
Eating all that you are served is considered to be good manners – but in an article published in the journal Child Care in Practice, research has shown that this kind of indoctrination is a bad idea. Teaching your child not to listen to her own “I’m full” signals can condition her to associate overeating with being good.
2. “I need to diet!”
No matter how you feel about your own weight, try not to share your anxieties with your child. The results from a survey by UK teen magazine Sugar suggest that messages are passed down subliminally and directly as you share your own attitudes about your body image, and children can be taught from an early age to feel body shame, which can lead to eating disorders. Rather, shift the conversation to focus on eating good foods and living a healthy lifestyle, so that your whole family can be strong and fit.
3. “Act like a lady,” or “Be a man.”
Gender stereotyping can begin from an early age. By telling your children to act in a certain way, you’ll either be giving them something to conform to or feel guilty about rebelling against. Rather discuss what you hope your child will do, and explain why you want them to do it. For example, “I know you are feeling nervous about your first day of school, and that’s OK, but remember that you are going to learn all sorts of new and exciting things, and this is a big step in growing up, so try to be brave.” Or, “It’s polite to meet people’s eyes and greet them when you are introduced. It makes them feel good that you’ve seen them and said hello.”
4. “You did so well.”
It’s important to support and praise your child, but if she didn’t do well, rather not pretend that she did, says Dr Jim Taylor, a US expert in psychology of parenting. Most children will see through this and feel that you are praising them dishonestly. Some might even feel that they don’t need to work hard at improving because their parents already think they did well. Instead, focus on specific aspects, such as saying, “I saw that you tried really hard,” or, “I noticed that you are catching the ball much better than you used to.” Essentially, be honest without undermining your child, so that when you do praise her, she knows you mean it.
5. “This is scary.”
Children don’t yet have an understanding of the scale of fear, so by telling them that it’s scary merging with traffic on the highway can make them terrified of being in the car, for example. Carefully consider whether the information you want to share with them is actually necessary, and if it is frightening, try to tell them in a way that empowers them, says Dr Peggy Rios, an expert in counselling psychology in the US. Try saying, “Oh, it’s sometimes stressful trying to find a gap in the traffic. Tell me if you spot one!”
6. “Don’t tell your father or mother.”
Don’t make your children complicit in your bad behaviour and don’t teach them to keep secrets from the other parent. It creates uncertainty, guilt and split loyalties – and can make your child believe that it’s OK for other adults to ask her to keep a secret. If you want to do something you don’t want your partner to know about, do it when your child isn’t around. If you are keeping a secret for a good reason – like a birthday present – then it’s fine to get your child in on the deal, as long as you discuss the distinction between good and bad secrets, according to Katie Domries, a child and family therapist and educational consultant in Canada, and accept that it’s possible that your child might let the cat out of the bag.
7. “Don’t speak to strangers.”
This is one of the more contentious pieces of parenting advice, as children speak to strangers with your blessing every day – a nice lady at the local supermarket, the friendly cashier at the chemist, or a new parent at their school. Instead of sending mixed messages, try to teach your children about problematic behaviour from adults. Explain to a child what to do if she gets lost, so that she’s not paralysed by a fear of strangers. Tell her to “stay where lots of people can see you. Ask a security guard, someone who works at a shop or a mother with children for help.”
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